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Marathon clears a path to redevelopment

North Shore town acquiring brownfield to invite industrial players, investment
Marathon mill (early Nov)
Demolition continued at the former Marathon Pulp mill site in November. (Supplied photo)

The Town of Marathon has decided to take matters into its hands by acquiring a former local pulp mill in order to spur economic development.

The final demolition of the remaining mill buildings now underway at the Marathon Pulp plant marks the end of an industrial era for the community on Lake Superior’s north shore, but it also wipes the clean slate to begin anew.

Town CAO Daryl Skworchinski said they’re very close to wrapping up negotiations with Tembec, the mill’s former owner, on a purchase and sale agreement, which should be done by year’s end.

A final deal should be in place by January to bring before a bankruptcy court in the spring.

Skworchinski declined to give specifics on the transaction except to say discussions with Tembec have taken place over the last 12 months toward a final resolution on the property.

Since the closure of Marathon Pulp in 2009, town officials have been proactive marketing the brownfield property to bring new industry to the community.

But the property was so heavily contaminated the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) placed stringent conditions prior for any sale process. Any potential new owner was required to post millions of dollars in financial assurance up front – similar to a mine closure plan – to handle the cleanup should any long-term pollution issues arise.

To town officials searching to place the 200 lost mill jobs, those onerous conditions drove away prospective buyers who would be saddled with upfront capital requirements before their venture even got started.

Financial assurance would have to be posted as long as the remediated property remained under private ownership.

Not so, if the municipality acquired it, said Skworchinski.

While the MOECC might frown on such creative stickhandling, Skworchinski said it’s all perfectly above board.

“We’ve gotten a legal opinion on that and we believe we certainly have some creative options to work around that.”

The property will remain heavy industrially zoned, and the town will take on the environmental responsibility of monitoring the nearby groundwater.

With hundreds of acres at their disposal, the town’s long-term vision will be to market it as an industrial park and lease lots to manufacturing tenants who would share use of the deep water harbour and the power substation that once fed the mill.

The municipality is applying to a provincial industrial site certification program to access dollars and marketing support to promote the property to global investors.

“I think we’re finally coming to a point in 2017 where the municipality is going to control its own destiny. It’s our property, and it’s our intent to market it aggressively,” said Skworchinski.

Over the years, local hopes for the site have been raised and dashed by a number of development prospects, the latest being a Toronto high-tech company who toyed with the idea of placing a data storage facility on the Marathon site to draw water from Lake Superior to cool its servers.

Realistically, Skworchinski said the more likely uses of the site would involve marine logistics, forestry and natural resources-based manufacturing.

“That’s certainly what we envision.”

Some mild interest has come from wood pellet suppliers and a road salt provider due to its proximity to a natural harbour.

And if development warrants, a rail spur to the site connected to the Canadian Pacific main line could be re-established, he said.

The final tear-down of the mill buildings continues and will be finished by early summer with the fuel tanks being the last to go. Piles of rubble and scrap should be gone by spring, thus clearing the property for new development.

“Our expectation is that the site will be free and clear of demolition in June,” said Skworchinski.